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Chris Smither - From lows to the legal highs

Chris Smither is in danger of turning into one of his own heroes. Back in the 1960s, the then early twenty-something Smither was able to learn the blues literally at the feet of the masters. Going round to his friend, blues promoter Dick Waterman’s house in Boston, Massachusetts for dinner would result in hanging out with Son House, Skip James or Mississippi Fred McDowell, sharing a bottle of whiskey and picking up guitar licks.

Nowadays, a young musician looking for an insight into the blues styles that developed in the Mississippi Delta would have to travel a long way to find someone better to learn from than Smither himself.

“These guys would have been about the same age then as I am now,” says Smither, whose following in these parts has continued to build after some stunning appearances over the past few years and who returns to Scotland for two concerts this weekend. “At the time, being young, we didn’t think too much about it. It’s only later that you realise what an opportunity it was. We were just going round to Dick’s to visit and there would be these legends sitting there. I think they were a bit bemused by the fact that they were playing to almost exclusively white audiences by then but they were probably quite glad to be earning some decent money towards the end of their lives.”

Much as he can look back on evenings spent with Waterman’s famous clients of a certain vintage with a special glow, it was another of the promoter’s regular guests, a young singer-guitarist called Bonnie Raitt, who provided Smither with the lasting career fillip.

When Raitt recorded Smither’s Love Me Like A Man and I Feel the Same on the string of albums that established her early credentials, she wasn’t just proving to Smither that he had some songwriting talent, she was providing him with what he calls “mail box money” in perpetuity.

“Bonnie covering these songs has been an enormous help,” says Smither. “But it’s not just the fact that, financially, it kept me going all through a period when I was totally drunk and unproductive, it’s the loyalty she’s shown all through my career. She still sings those songs and she always tells her audience where she got them from and the fact that she’s still spreading the word about me after all this time is quite something.”

Smither grew up in New Orleans and was, he says, a real child of the 1950s. Elvis Presley and Fats Domino were attracting teenagers’ attention at the time and Smither was no different, although he also loved listening to the folk music, especially Burl Ives and The Weavers, his parents listened to at home. On an old ukulele he found in the attic he started mimicking Ives and The Weavers’ Pete Seeger – “I always liked to sing,” he says – and when the family upped sticks to Paris for eighteen months through his father, a university professor’s work, he upgraded to a guitar that his father acquired on a trip to Spain.

His intention on leaving school was to study anthropology but after a friend played him Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Blues in My Bottle, studying guitar picking began to take priority. Hearing Mississippi John Hurt, first on the Blues at Newport 1963 album and then in concert, only fed his determination to master the blues. Acting on another guitar-picking hero, Eric von Schmidt’s advice, Smither fetched up on the thriving Massachusetts folk scene where, with von Schmidt’s encouragement, he was soon playing gigs of his own.

The songwriting talent that piqued Bonnie Raitt’s interest also led to Smither signing with Poppy Records and releasing two albums before the drinking he alluded to earlier prevented him from making the most of his talents for twelve years.

“It’s the same with any addiction,” he says. “You’re in a losing game and it depends how much you’re willing to lose. When it gets to the stage where you’re taken to hospital and people are impressing upon you the seriousness of the situation you’re in, you can either pay attention to them or pay a price that I came to realise was going to be too steep. So I quit drinking and I’m glad to say, pulled myself out of the mess I was in.”

Smither’s career since the unproductive period has been a steady rise from hero of the blues cognoscenti to wider acclaim. His music has appeared in films such as the award-winning The Ride, whose star-director, John Flanders, played a folk-singer based largely on Smither, and The Horse Whisperer, with Emmylou Harris recording Smither’s Slow Surprise for the soundtrack CD. More recently, jazz singer Diana Krall followed Bonnie Raitt’s lead in recording Love Me Like a Man on her The Girl in the Other Room album, and crime writer Linda Barnes’s private investigator Carlotta Carlysle has continued her long-standing fascination for Smither with references to him throughout her adventures.

In 2009, Smither became a published writer himself when he was invited to contribute to Amplified, a collection of short stories written by prominent songwriters. His story, Leroy Purcell, has since been turned into a screenplay – it starts filming in Utah soon – and has led to Smither acquiring a literary agent and working on his own short story collection.

“It’s totally different to songwriting for me,” he says. “With songs I have to hold their hands all the way through the process and really work at it, whereas stories seem to take on a life of their own and I have to struggle to keep up with them. I’d love to write a novel one day and maybe I’ll turn to that when I get tired of climbing on to airplanes.”

For the moment, though, he remains very much the live performer and while he’s cut down on touring to some extent since the arrival of his daughter, who’s now seven, he still regularly clocks up a hundred gigs a year.

“Onstage is where it happens for me,” he says. “It’s why I write the songs because I love the contact with an audience and building something that lasts for an hour or two. I think if you ask anyone who’s been performing for a good long time like I have, they’ll agree that it’s the greatest legal high in the world.”

From The Herald, March 8, 2012.

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